Discovering How Student Activism Matters

This week in North Philly Notes, Matthew Williams, author of Strategizing against Sweatshopswrites about what he learned by studying college students engaged in strategically innovative activism to help sweatshop workers across the world.

When I began working on the research for my new book, Strategizing against Sweatshops, if you had asked me, I’m sure that I would have said student activism is important. But I suspect I would have been somewhat vague about the specifics of why and how it is important. In interviewing members of United Students Against Sweatshops, a college student group that is one of three oStrategizing against Sweatshops_smrganizations that I focus on, I gained a much better understanding of how and why student activism matters. Student activists’ position on college campuses puts them in a place where they are more opportunities for success as a social movement than many other movements have. And this gives student activists a chance to break new ground in changing social norms and structures in the wider society, using college campuses as beachheads of progressive change.

If you’ve ever engaged in social justice activism, you know that it is often thankless work. It’s not simply that people outside the social justice community often look at the value of what you do with some degree of skepticism, but that you must be in it for the long haul to see the results of your actions—and those results are often unclear. When political and business leaders make reforms that movements have sought, they rarely give credit to movements for influencing them. The chain of cause and effect is not always clear. Certainly, it’s rare that any particular action your group takes, no matter how dramatic, can be clearly connected with causing some particular policy change.

Student activists face some of these same frustrations. But things do change somewhat when working on the scale of a college campus. The somewhat enclosed, clearly defined boundaries and small scale of a college campus create opportunities that don’t exist elsewhere. Compared to officials in positions of government and large businesses, college administrators are relatively accessible to students. Student activists can reasonably expect to get meetings with top-level campus officials. Even if a college president has an antagonistic view of what student activists are doing, the norms of college life are such that they are expected to tolerate such activism and give the students doing it some hearing. This is particularly striking given that colleges are much less democratic than government bodies. Even for faculty, principles of shared governance have significantly eroded and college administrations have increasingly limited accountability to faculty. There are generally no democratic mechanisms on college campuses for students to keep administrators in check. And yet the small scale and norms of the college campus make it possible for student activists to directly engage with high level administrators.

Student activists have other advantages as well. Doing the sort of movement-building necessary to successfully pressure administrators to change policy (and not simply meet with students) is relatively easy within the contained arena of a college campus. Though economic pressures mean this is less true than it once was, students still have a larger amount of biographical availability—free time to engage in activism—than older people who must hold down full time jobs and may have family obligations. The existence of student newspapers and the ease of organizing an educational event such as hosting a speaker or panel makes getting out the word about one’s cause relatively easy. The density of social networks on campus—in dorms, in student groups, among informal friendship circles, etc.—makes it relatively easy to recruit people.

Finally, the small scale of the college campus makes it relatively easy to exercise leverage over those in power and see concrete results from one’s action. A number of USAS members I interviewed told me stories of sit-ins, hunger strikes, or simply a series of escalating protest actions resulting in administrators making major concessions to them.

None of this is to say that successful student activism is easy—it still requires a lot of dedication and hard work. It is simply an easier arena in which to engage in social activism that many other contexts social justice activists find themselves in.

USAS was able to use these circumstances to help sweatshop workers on the other side of the world unionize and otherwise improve their conditions. They were able to do this because so many colleges and universities have licensing agreements with major apparel firms like Nike and Champion, where the companies are allowed to produce clothing with the school’s name and logo on it and the school gets a cut of the resulting profits. Apparel companies value these deals because it gives them access to a captive audience for marketing and they believe they can use this to build lifetime brand loyalty. This gave student activists potential leverage over these companies. USAS pushed administrators to put in place pro-labor rights code of conduct for their licensees and to require the companies to allow inspections by the Worker Rights Consortium, an independent monitoring organization, to verify compliance—and they have pushed colleges to threaten to suspend or cancel their licensing agreements when licensees are found to be violating the codes of conduct.. This has forced companies like Nike and Champion to address problems when they are caught red-handed using sweatshop labor.

USAS is not unique in being able to use the small scale of the college campus to exert wider influence. Our society’s slowly changing attitudes towards sexual harassment, assault and what qualifies as consent have been significantly influenced by activism on college campuses, whose small scale allowed student activists to more easily challenge sexist norms there. And those changes in norms have slowly radiated outward from college campuses. During the 1980s, students were at the forefront of the movement to impose sanctions on apartheid South Africa by pushing college administrators to divest from companies doing business in South Africa. A parallel movement is now pushing colleges to divest from the fossil fuel industry, an industry that must be dismantled to protect our planet’s fragile ecosystem and climate.

Student activism matters both because it is easier to engage in successful activism on college campuses and because victories on college campuses can have important effects on the wider world.

Temple University Press’ NEH-Funded Open Access Labor Studies Titles Find New Readers Among Rutgers Students

This week in North Philly Notes, we interview Rutgers University Professor Will Brucher about Temple University Press’ NEH-funded Open Access Labor Titles.

In 2017, Temple University Press and Temple University Libraries received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to make a selection of the Press’s outstanding out-of-print labor studies titles freely available online as part of the Humanities Open Book Program. All 32 titles are now available on the Temple University Press website, where they can be read online or downloaded in EPUB, PDF, and MOBI formats. The titles are also available open access on JSTOR and Project MUSE.

To get a better sense of how these books are being used by new readers, Temple University Libraries’ Scholarly Communications Specialist Annie Johnson recently spoke with Rutgers University Assistant Teaching Professor William Brucher about how he has integrated the books into his own course curriculum.

First off, tell us a little bit about the class you are teaching this semester.

Labor and Employment History is an online graduate class in the Master of Labor and Employment Relations (MLER) program of the Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations (SMLR) in New Brunswick, New Jersey. There are 28 students enrolled in the class. Some are full-time students who will pursue careers as labor relations and human resource professionals in the private and public sectors, work for state and federal agencies like the Department of Labor and OSHA, or work as organizers and representatives for labor unions. Some are part-time students who already work full-time jobs in those fields.

How you are using the Temple University Press open access labor studies and work books in your class?

I have used several of the books in my weekly reading assignments. For instance, I assigned primary source documents from The Black Worker, Volume 1, edited by Philip S. Foner and Ronald W. Lewis, for a unit on race and labor in the nineteenth century, and chapters from Alone in a Crowd: Women in the Trades Tell Their Stories, edited by Jean Reith Schroedel, for a unit on gender and labor in the 1960s and 1970s.

In addition, each student in the class must complete an 8- to 12-page research paper on a labor history topic. This year, I asked my students to choose their topic based on the books in the Temple University Press labor studies and work collection, because it is such an excellent (and free!) resource. 

How are students approaching the assignment? 

The students have completed their first drafts and will do peer reviews before turning in their final drafts at the end of the semester.

They’re using nearly every book in the collection. Several students are exploring topics in women’s labor history, using Alone in a Crowd, edited by Jean Reith Schroedel; A Needle, a Bobbin, a Strike, edited by Joan M. Jensen and Sue Davidson; Labor Education for Women Workers, edited by Barbara Mayer Wertheimer; Sisterhood and Solidarity, edited by Joyce L. Kornbluh and Mary Frederickson; Mary Heaton Vorse by Dee Garrison; and Sisterhood Denied, by Dolores Janieweski. One student is writing a comparative paper on women clerical workers in the U.S. and the U.K. using Woman’s Place Is at the Typewriter, by Margery W. Davies, and Sameul Cohn’s The Process of Occupational Sex-Typing.  

Some students are writing about the experiences of Black workers using the volumes edited by Foner and Lewis. Others are writing about the difficulties encountered by unions in the second half of the twentieth century using The Crisis of American Labor, by Barbara S. Griffith and On Strike at Hormel, by Hardy Green. Another student is writing a paper on OSHA using Liberalism at Work, by Charles Noble, along with chapters from Alone in a Crowd and Workers’ Struggles, Past and Present, edited by James Green.  One student is writing about Philadelphia labor using Working People of Philadelphia, 1800-1850, by Bruce Laurie, and Philadelphia Communists, 1936-1956, by Paul Lyons and another is writing about Massachusetts labor using With Our Hands, by Mark Erlich and David Goldberg.

Can you talk about the importance of this collection?

There has been an explosion of impressive labor studies scholarship over the past 50 years published by university presses, including Temple. Unfortunately, much of that scholarship has gone out of print, and resides primarily on the shelves of university and college libraries, making it inaccessible to many. It is wonderful that Temple University Press and Libraries pursued an NEH grant to republish some of the Press’s out-of-print labor studies online and open-access, free and available for anyone to use. I will continue to use the collection in the classes I teach and in my own research. Other labor studies and labor education faculty I know from around the country are also excited about this collection and are using it in their work.

Anything else you’d like to share with us?

Thanks to the Temple University Press and Libraries staff for your hard work in making this collection freely available!

The origins of the Gender Wage Gap and The Cost of Being a Girl

This week in North Philly Notes, Yasemin Besen-Cassino, author of The Cost of Being a Girl: Working Teens and the Origins of the Gender Wage Gapreveals her findings about how the origins of the gender wage gap begin as teens enter the workforce. 

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In the past few weeks, we have been bombarded with news from all over the world on gender inequality in the workplace. From Hollywood to media to politics, many sectors point to unequal pay in the workplace as well as other problems such as sexual harassment. Unequal pay has been a systematic problem of workplaces and women’s lives. A wide range of discipline and approaches have offered explanations to this persistent problem. Some have focused on the women and have argued the women have lower pay because of their own characteristics- they study different topics, have lower education, less job experience especially because they leave the workforce due to childcare and parental leave. Some have focused on occupational characteristics: women and men are concentrated in different jobs, different sectors and different positions. Women’s positions tend to pay less and have less authority. No matter how they looked at the pay, there always remained an unexplained portion: the cost of being a woman. As I studied these dominant theories, I sat at a coffee shop, where a teenage barista brought my coffee. It occurred to me at that coffee shop that we were looking at this problem all wrong. Even though the focus of the theories seemed different (workers vs. jobs), almost all the studies on the wage gap studied the same population: the adult workforce. However, work experience does not begin with the completion of formal education. Many teenagers work while still in school as working part-time while still school is a quintessentially American phenomenon. Therefore, work experience, and potentially the wage gap starts long before the start of “real” jobs. In The Cost of Being a Girl, I look at a substantial yet previously neglected portion of the workforce: teenage workers. Focusing on this group includes a previously understudied portion of our workforce to offer a more comprehensive understanding. More importantly, the teenage workforce is like a social laboratory: at these early ages these typical explanations of the wage gap “women have babies” “women leave the workforce” “women do more house work” are not relevant. If we look at 12-13 year-olds: they do not have spouses, they don’t have children. They are at the same education and skill level: what happens when we look at the wage gap?

  • Using NLSY data, I find that 12- and 13-year-old boys and girls have equal pay. Once they become 14 and 15, we see the emergence of the first wage gap which widens with age.
  • Some individual characteristics, such as race and age, exacerbate the wage gap. Age makes the wage gap wider—the older girls get, the wider the gap; African American girls have an even wider pay gap
  • The types of jobs are important too: girls remain in freelance jobs whereas boys move into employee type jobs. Even within employee type jobs, girls are put in positions to deal with difficult customers, do more aesthetic labor (buy more clothes to fit the look) and are less likely to deal with money.
  • Girls are expected as part of their jobs to buy the clothes and products they are selling to maintain the look of the company; as such, many girls end up accumulating credit card debt.
  • Among freelance jobs: girls tend to do babysitting. Through informal networks, their job description changes, includes unpaid hours and many other chores, whereas many boys who babysit have higher pay, little unpaid hours and clear job descriptions.
  • Experiments show that potential employers are not willing to give female babysitters raises: if she shows a connection to the child, and asks for money, she is seen as manipulative. If she does not show an attachment, she is seen as cold. Either way, care is seen in opposition to money, and asking for money is discouraged.
  • These early jobs also have long-term effects. With the longitudinal data set, I find that women, many years later, experience the effects of having worked as a teenager. Early work experiences benefit men but not women: results in lower pay for women. Especially girls who have worked in apparel sector report feeling overweight years later.
  • Girls are given mixed messages: they are told they can be anything they want at home and school but they are discouraged because they experience firsthand the problems of the workplace.
  • Girls are less likely to report serious issues in jobs like sexual harassment because they feel it is “not their real job.”

Celebrating LGBT History Month

This week in North Philly Notes, in celebration of LGBT History Month, we showcase eight Temple University Press titles that chronicle LGBT History.

Out in the Union: A Labor History of Queer America by Miriam Frank 

1476_reg.gifOut in the Union tells the continuous story of queer American workers from the mid-1960s through 2013. Miriam Frank shrewdly chronicles the evolution of labor politics with queer activism and identity formation, showing how unions began affirming the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender workers in the 1970s and 1980s. She documents coming out on the job and in the union as well as issues of discrimination and harassment, and the creation of alliances between unions and LGBT communities.

Featuring in-depth interviews with LGBT and labor activists, Frank provides an inclusive history of the convergence of labor and LGBT interests. She carefully details how queer caucuses in local unions introduced domestic partner benefits and union-based AIDS education for health care workers-innovations that have been influential across the U.S. workforce. Out in the Union also examines organizing drives at queer workplaces, campaigns for marriage equality, and other gay civil rights issues to show the enduring power of LGBT workers.

The Hirschfeld Archives: Violence, Death, and Modern Queer Culture by Heike Bauer

2432_reg.gifInfluential sexologist and activist Magnus Hirschfeld founded Berlin’s Institute of Sexual Sciences in 1919 as a home and workplace to study homosexual rights activism and support transgender people. It was destroyed by the Nazis in 1933. This episode in history prompted Heike Bauer to ask, Is violence an intrinsic part of modern queer culture? The Hirschfeld Archives answers this critical question by examining the violence that shaped queer existence in the first part of the twentieth century.
Hirschfeld himself escaped the Nazis, and many of his papers and publications survived. Bauer examines his accounts of same-sex life from published and unpublished writings, as well as books, articles, diaries, films, photographs and other visual materials, to scrutinize how violence—including persecution, death and suicide—shaped the development of homosexual rights and political activism.
The Hirschfeld Archives brings these fragments of queer experience together to reveal many unknown and interesting accounts of LGBTQ life in the early twentieth century, but also to illuminate the fact that homosexual rights politics were haunted from the beginning by racism, colonial brutality, and gender violence.

Modern American Queer History edited by Allida M. Black

1391_reg.gifIn the twentieth century, countless Americans claimed gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender identities, forming a movement to secure social as well as political equality. This collection of essays considers the history as well as the historiography of the queer identities and struggles that developed in the United States in the midst of widespread upheaval and change.

Whether the subject is an individual life story, a community study, or an aspect of public policy, these essays illuminate the ways in which individuals in various locales understood the nature of their desires and the possibilities of resisting dominant views of normality and deviance. Theoretically informed, but accessible, the essays shed light too on the difficulties of writing history when documentary evidence is sparse or “coded.” Taken together these essays suggest that while some individuals and social networks might never emerge from the shadows, the persistent exploration of the past for their traces is an integral part of the on-going struggle for queer rights.

Just Queer Folks: Gender and Sexuality in Rural America, by Colin R. Johnson

2262_reg.gifMost studies of lesbian and gay history focus on urban environments. Yet gender and sexual diversity were anything but rare in nonmetropolitan areas in the first half of the twentieth century. Just Queer Folks explores the seldom-discussed history of same-sex intimacy and gender nonconformity in rural and small-town America during a period when the now familiar concepts of heterosexuality and homosexuality were just beginning to take shape.

Eschewing the notion that identity is always the best measure of what can be known about gender and sexuality, Colin R. Johnson argues instead for a queer historicist approach. In so doing, he uncovers a startlingly unruly rural past in which small-town eccentrics, “mannish” farm women, and cross-dressing Civilian Conservation Corps enrollees were often just queer folks so far as their neighbors were concerned. Written with wit and verve, Just Queer Folks upsets a whole host of contemporary commonplaces, including the notion that queer history is always urban history.

Mapping Gay L.A.: The Intersection of Place and Politics by Moira Rachel Kenney

1404_reg.gifIn this book, Moira Kenney makes the case that Los Angeles better represents the spectrum of gay and lesbian community activism and culture than cities with a higher gay profile. Owing to its sprawling geography and fragmented politics, Los Angeles lacks a single enclave like the Castro in San Francisco or landmarks as prominent as the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village, but it has a long and instructive history of community building.

By tracking the terrain of the movement since the beginnings of gay liberation in 1960’s Los Angeles, Kenney shows how activists lay claim to streets, buildings, neighborhoods, and, in the example of West Hollywood, an entire city. Exploiting the area’s lack of cohesion, they created a movement that maintained a remarkable flexibility and built support networks stretching from Venice Beach to East LA. Taking a different path from San Francisco and New York, gays and lesbians in Los Angeles emphasized social services, decentralized communities (usually within ethnic neighborhoods), and local as well as national politics. Kenney’s grounded reading of this history celebrates the public and private forms of activism that shaped a visible and vibrant community.

Deregulating Desire: Flight Attendant Activism, Family Politics, and Workplace Justice, by Ryan Patrick Murphy

2255_reg.gifIn 1975, National Airlines was shut down for 127 days when flight attendants went on strike to protest long hours and low pay. Activists at National and many other U.S. airlines sought to win political power and material resources for people who live beyond the boundary of the traditional family. In Deregulating Desire, Ryan Patrick Murphy, a former flight attendant himself, chronicles the efforts of single women, unmarried parents, lesbians and gay men, as well as same-sex couples to make the airline industry a crucible for social change in the decades after 1970.
Murphy situates the flight attendant union movement in the history of debates about family and work. Each chapter offers an economic and a cultural analysis to show how the workplace has been the primary venue to enact feminist and LGBTQ politics.
From the political economic consequences of activism to the dynamics that facilitated the rise of what Murphy calls the “family values economy” to the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978, Deregulating Desire emphasizes the enduring importance of social justice for flight attendants in the twenty-first century.

Making Modern Love: Sexual Narratives and Identities in Interwar Britain by Lisa Z. Sigel

2183_regAfter the Great War, British men and women grappled with their ignorance about sexuality and desire. Seeking advice and information from doctors, magazines, and each other, they wrote tens of thousands of letters about themselves as sexual subjects. In these letters, they disclosed their uncertainties, their behaviors, and the role of sexuality in their lives. Their fascinating narratives tell how people sought to unleash their imaginations and fashion new identities.

Making Modern Love shows how readers embraced popular media—self-help books, fetish magazines, and advice columns—as a source of information about sexuality and a means for telling their own stories. From longings for transcendent marital union to fantasies of fetish-wear, cross-dressing, and whipping, men and women revealed a surprising range of desires and behaviors (queer and otherwise) that have been largely disregarded until now.

Lisa Sigel mines these provocative narratives to understand how they contributed to new subjectivities and the development of modern sexualities.

City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945-1972, by Marc Stein

1774_regMarc Stein’s City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves is refreshing for at least two reasons: it centers on a city that is not generally associated with a vibrant gay and lesbian culture, and it shows that a community was forming long before the Stonewall rebellion. In this lively and well received book, Marc Stein brings to life the neighborhood bars and clubs where people gathered and the political issues that rallied the community. He reminds us that Philadelphians were leaders in the national gay and lesbian movement and, in doing so, suggests that New York and San Francisco have for too long obscured the contributions of other cities to gay culture.

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